As companies struggle to overcome a talent shortage amidst the “great resignation,” many find themselves asking how this situation came to be. While there are multiple factors behind the spiraling quit rates, one of the root causes is increased burnout, especially among remote employees.
By now we’ve all seen that while remote working has numerous benefits, it can also have a detrimental effect on people’s work-life balance. Numerous studies report that remote employees are working at night and on the weekends, and the average workday has lengthened by 48 minutes. Adding to this is an often unspoken expectation that workers should be willing to respond to emails or messages at any time of the day.
I think the occasional after-hours email is acceptable, but in most cases the situation isn’t so benign. In fact, what I’m hearing from many leaders is that the shift to remote working has led to a company-wide “always on” culture where employees feel compelled to reply to emails or messages as quickly as possible. And if they do sign off for the evening or on the weekends, they risk being left out of important discussions or they’re seen as less dedicated to their job.
It’s a uniquely challenging dilemma, because simply banning after-hours communication isn’t a practical solution for most businesses — and it’s not always what workers want, either. But something has to be done, and that’s why managers, companies, and even entire countries are grappling with how to address an issue that is adversely affecting people’s health and overall quality of life.
A state of work-life imbalance
Let’s look at what the research reveals about the current state of workplace communication practices. One survey found that over 80% of managers would contact their employees after hours, and nearly 30% would expect a response within a few hours. While outreach for a “work emergency” topped the list of reasons that a manager would contact their employees, many said they’d also message their staff for other professional, personal, or even social reasons.
I think most of us would agree that there’s nothing wrong with sending a message to employees if there’s an emergency. But the reality is that 76% of employees say they regularly check work emails after hours, and 55% check their email after 11 PM. Even while on vacation, nearly 60% of workers check in with their bosses or coworkers at least once a day.
Part of this can be chalked up to the widespread misconception that staying busy or “on the grind” is the only way to unlock success in today’s hypercompetitive workplace. It will be difficult to change this mentality, but some of the onus is certainly on employers — and especially managers — to reverse this trend and chart a new course for their people.
Personally, I think that managers can too easily forget that employees are in a much different position than they are when it comes to setting boundaries. First, as subordinates, employees likely feel compelled to respond even if it’s inconvenient for them. Even if they’re just replying to a colleague, there’s a sense that their boss is always watching or could be looped in at any time.
Second, it can be difficult for workers to account for the time they spend on after-hours communication. Checking a few emails may only require 15 minutes here and there, but over the course of a week this can easily add up to several hours. In fact, one study found that workers are spending an average of eight hours a week reading and responding to company-related emails after hours.
The ripple effects of “anticipatory stress”
Not surprisingly, when work trickles into people’s personal lives it affects not only them but also their families. Various studies reveal that employees experience increased anxiety, decreased quality of sleep, and lower relationship satisfaction. For example, one survey found that 80% employees are anxious about their after-hours e-mailing, and 40% report significant conflict between themselves and relatives over the use of work e-mail at home.
What’s even more notable is that these negative outcomes are experienced regardless of how much time employees actually spend attending to work emails. In fact, the mere expectation of being “always on,” known as anticipatory stress, can lead to exhaustion, burnout, and emotional distress among workers and their relatives.
What this means is that it’s not simply enough for managers to decrease the amount of time they and their subordinates are spending on work emails after hours. Rather, businesses need to understand and address the broader cultural issues at play here — even if it means taking somewhat drastic measures. Let’s look at how this issue is being handled at both the global and organizational level.
What’s being done globally?
In several European countries, legislation has successfully been introduced to prevent businesses from encroaching on their employees’ personal time. France set a strong precedent in 2016, when their government adopted a labor law that included a right to disconnect. Under the right to disconnect, employees do not have to take calls or read emails related to work during their time off.
Other countries have since followed suit. For example, a recently approved Spanish law also establishes employees' right to disconnect from digital devices during off-work hours. And just last month, the Ontario government introduced legislation that would force some employers to develop policies allowing workers to unplug from the office after their shift.
However, until a few weeks ago, no countries were imposing penalties on businesses that failed to comply. But that all changed when Portugal’s parliament passed new labor laws that make it illegal for employers to contact workers outside of office hours. Under the new rules, employers could face fines for contacting their employees after hours.
Finding the right balance between restriction and choice
Compared to other parts of the world, legislative efforts haven’t gained nearly as much traction in the U.S. In New York City, a right-to-disconnect law that would allow workers to refuse to answer work emails after hours has been stalled for some time. This raises the question: Absent any legislative solutions, what should organizations do to address the “always on” workplace?
To start, it’s a good idea to put some sort of policy in place at your company. One survey found that less than 10% of companies have a policy that addresses after-hours communication. And even though 3% of businesses said they were working on a policy, the majority (87.5%) have no procedures in place.
But when it comes to your company’s specific policy, a one-size-fits-all approach simply won’t work. Here are a few tactics that different organizations have had success with, ordered from most to least restrictive:
- Ban after-hours emailing: For some companies, it might be necessary to prohibit all communication outside of the workday — and a few are even using technology to ensure policy adherence. For example, Volkswagen modified email servers for employees so messages could only be routed between 7 a.m. and 6:15 p.m. (30 minutes before and after official working hours), with a complete restriction on weekends or when workers went on vacation.
- Restrict communication during certain times: Rather than impose a blanket restriction, companies could ask employees not to email during certain times or on certain days — for example, no messaging on the weekends or on Fridays after 6pm. Creating “core hours,” which are typically 4-hour time blocks when people are permitted to schedule meetings, can also help promote a healthier workplace culture. Dropbox, Slack, and several other businesses have already adopted this tactic.
- Let employees determine what works for them: For certain workers, policies that restrict email access could do more harm than good. Consider the working parent who needs to attend to their children’s needs during the day, and who welcomes the ability to catch up on emails after hours. Then there’s the type A team member who simply prefers to keep up with their inbox. In fact, one study found that those who have a strong need for control would actually be more stressed if they were prohibited from accessing their inbox during certain times.
It all boils down to culture
I think many leaders are beginning to recognize just how pervasive and damaging the “always on” culture has become, especially over the past year and a half. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to address this, and you’ll have to think carefully about what makes the most sense for your business. But realistically, just asking your managers to “do better” probably isn’t going to lead to meaningful change.
In fact, a Robert Half survey found that while two-thirds of tech leaders say they could adhere to a ban on after-hours communications, 41% of their employees doubted their managers would follow such a rule. And the larger the company, the less likely managers were to say they could stick to such a ban.
So consider what’s going to truly move the needle on this, ask your employees to weigh-in, and work on creating a policy (if you don’t already one). Then make sure that managers are aligned with the broader vision, because they are the ones who can drive real change here. And remember that the quality of life of your people — not to mention your company’s ability to overcome the talent shortage — could depend on whether or not you take action around this important issue!
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